The pressure is on Brandon Johnson to deliver his first speech Monday as Chicago's 57th mayor.
But the inaugural address is remembered far more for the mistakes the mayors made than for the rhetoric they used.
Consider Lori Lightfoot and Harold Washington, who each made the same mistake in their inaugural speeches—for different reasons, but with similar negative consequences.
The two challenge the City Council whose support they need to govern Chicago and confront the city's deep-rooted problems of crime, education, finance, transportation, housing, and poverty.
“Business as usual will not be accepted by the people of this city. Business as usual will not be welcomed by any part of this city. Business as usual will not be accepted by the chief executive of this big city,” Chicago's first African American mayor told a crowd in a Naval Pier ballroom in 1983.
Result: ‘Council War'
Then-Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak would later point to that statement as triggering a power struggle known as the “Council War.” That inspired him to organize a group of 29 Council members, mostly white, who banded together to thwart Washington's every move.
Opposition groups, including Ald are now indicted and retired. Edward Burke, however, was even more threatened by Washington's inauguration day portrait of the dire state of the city's finances at the time.
The newly elected mayor claims he inherited a combined deficit, $400 million in CTA and Chicago Public Schools and a $150 million shortfall in the city's corporate funds—a shortfall caused, in part, by the city's hundreds of new jobs and hundreds more. jobs moved in during the waning days of the reign of her predecessor, Jane Byrne.
“I will issue an order to freeze all city hiring and salary increases to reduce city costs by millions of dollars. We had no choice but to let go of the several hundred new city employees who were added for political reasons,” Washington said that day.
No wonder Vrdolyak and Burke felt threatened. As Byrne's most powerful City Council ally, the employees they sponsor are among the most under threat.
Fast forward to 2019, when Lightfoot delivered his only inaugural address.
A former federal prosecutor, Lightfoot owed his election to the federal corruption investigation still swirling around Burke in 2019. He was literally languishing in single digits until federal investigators raided the City Hall suite Burke occupied as chair of the powerful Council Finance Committee, cover glass doors with brown butcher paper.
Lightfoot denounced the Board as corrupt, then turned around and shamed the 50 councilors sitting behind him to join the Wintrust Arena crowd who cheered in a standing ovation for reform. Afterward, he rushed back to City Hall to sign an executive order that repealed Council members' unrestrained control over permits and permits in their neighborhoods.
Lightfoot: Starting off on the wrong foot
All of that set the stage for a contentious relationship between Lightfoot and the Council from which Lightfoot would never recover.
“I feel like a child being scolded by parents. … It was a big mistake for an executive to work with a legislature,” Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), chairman of Lightfoot's Select Budget Committee, told the Sun-Times the day he left Lightfoot to support Johnson.
Cook County Council President Toni Preckwinkle, Lightfoot's 2019 defeated second-round opponent, was on stage at Wintrust when the new mayor “turned around and punished limb and I thought, ‘Ooooh. This is not a good start.”
What can Johnson learn from Lightfoot's mistakes?
“If I were him, I would turn around and say, ‘Look, I know I couldn't get anything done without you. I want to work with you,'” said Preckwinkle.
“I look forward to working with Mayor-elect Johnson around the two crises this city is facing. That is the violence and the challenge of meeting the needs of asylum seekers who come to our cities and counties. Over the last 12 years, I haven't really had a partner in this building and I look forward to working with him.”
Former Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan is in a unique position to compare the two blunders, having served as North Side liaison for the Washington campaign and as director of intergovernmental affairs in the Washington government.
He believed Washington was deliberately instigating the Council Wars to “buy time” to achieve what he knew he could not because of entrenched bureaucratic opposition.
“He knows what he's getting into. The whole system of government is against him and he knows he needs time to change that,” Houlihan said.
“He did it on purpose. He wanted them to fight him. … But that was a mistake. It's hurting the city.”
It also led to “many years of storytelling” depicting Chicago as “Beirut on a lake,” he added, “and the intense racism that resulted from that.”
Houlihan believes Lightfoot's mistake was accidental, driven by hubris.
He was “too impressed with the results of his election and thought that, by order, he could talk about the supposed state of affairs and not the real state of affairs. Add that to a certain amount of, shall we call it, prosecution arrogance? Houlian said.
“Married to a prosecutor (Ann Tighe), I've spent a lot of time talking about, ‘Who died and made them God?'”
Johnson's job: Avoid mistakes
The challenge for Johnson is not only to avoid the mistakes made by Washington and Lightfoot, but also to make the rhetorical transition from what Houlihan calls “an outsider who speaks rather eloquently about what should be” to “what he can do” as the most lots to do in Chicago. strong elected officials.
“He needs to know that, we need taxes. How can I talk about taxes in a way that I can deal with, instead of just saying, ‘You have to do this. You have to do that' to the City Council. … He has to find out about policing, what are we doing in trying to restore the trust and respect from the people to the police and some of the moral issues that the police, feel that they are on an island of their own,” Houlihan said.
Johnson was a gifted communicator, said Houlihan, but that alone wouldn't be enough — not even in an inaugural address.
“He couldn't fit into these tall clichés or rather shallow bon mots. He should have an in-depth talk about what he thinks he can do. He had to talk about it in a real way. Not just pies in the sky or slogans. He needs to talk about what he wants to get done and how to get it done and speak in those terms. Not about the beautiful world that could be, but about the real world as it is,” said the former assessor.
“Chances are that this city needs and wants some leadership and wants, as did the change from Trump to Biden, some decency and a willingness to address our issues in an honest way.”
Political strategist Delmarie Cobb has heard media complaints that Johnson “hasn't talked about real substance” and needs to “put some flesh on the bone.”
He expected his inaugural address to “outline an aspirational roadmap for how he will tackle the problems he faces and how he intends to govern.”
But “I can't imagine it will go into detail because it will be his last real day to enjoy the win and all the positives of winning,” he added.
“As soon as he had his open house on Monday, it just went and there was no turning back. He jumps right into summer and what it means for Chicago and the violence. He has to choose an inspector (policeman). He was immediately hit by a lot of trouble which was a big deal. And, of course, the immigrant crisis.”
Chicago Teachers' Union President Stacy Davis Gates believes Johnson will face a tough challenge.
“I am depending on him to deliver the most powerful speech we have heard “in the last 100 years” from any mayor in this city. When you have Michael Jordan's politics, I think he can get there,” said Davis Gates.
“You've seen it happen. He went from 2% (in polls) to 5th floor (City Hall). … It was an extraordinary journey – even more so for someone from the progressive wing of our party. … You can't get anything more Jordan-like than that,” he added.
“The mayor-elect has raised the bar. He keeps on outperforming, outmaneuvering, outperforming one of the political traditions that we have in Chicago. And I don't expect this inaugural address to deviate from that.
Different mayor, same problem
Veteran communications strategist Marilyn Katz also worked for Harold Washington.
After reviewing the first inaugural address given by every Chicago mayor since Richard J. Daley in 1955, Katz said what struck him most was the “similarity of the speeches” and “the tenacity of schools and taxes” as cited by the “major issue.”
“It's kind of sad, if you think about it too much,” Katz wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.
Rahm Emanuel devoted 13 paragraphs of his first inaugural address to the need to improve Chicago schools. And that was after convincing the Illinois General Assembly to extend the school day and school year before he even took office.
The dice were rolled for the 2012 teachers' strike which was Chicago's first in 25 years and for a record fifty school closures the following year.
“I fully understand there will be those who oppose our efforts to reform our schools, cut costs and make government more effective,” Emanuel said, demanding “shared sacrifices” at every level.
“Some are bound to say, ‘This is how we do things – we can't try anything new. That's the rule — we can't change it.' … So when I ask for a new policy, I assure you, the only reply I will not tolerate is: ‘We've never done it like that before.' Chicago is a city of ‘yes we can,' not ‘no we can't.'”